NASCAR is where the show and entertainment is king and the sanctioning body is in complete control of the entire production. As such, NASCAR could not have hoped for a better kick-off to its season at Daytona last weekend prior to Sunday’s 50th running of the Daytona 500. To the delirious delight of his legion of fans, scored a dominant victory in Saturday night’s Bud Shoot-out in his debut with Rick Hendrick’s team and during an early, Friday night practice session, notorious bad guys Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch got into each other on and off the track, providing the media and fans with a perfect piece of juicy controversy.
Driver introductions before the Shoot-out told the story. Busch was roundly booed by most of the crowd. Stewart enjoyed plenty of cheers as well as boos while defending-champion Jimmie Johnson and team-mate Jeff Gordon were greeted with muffled boos drowning out small ripples of applause. But when ‘Little E’ was introduced he brought-down the house as the place erupted in passionate cheering. Clearly, Earnhardt stands in a class of his own as NASCAR’s most popular driver and cultural icon.
And when ‘Little E’ went to the front in the race the place went wild, cheering with resounding enthusiasm whenever he fended off challenges from Stewart, Gordon or Dave Blaney, and going bananas on the final lap as he stayed out front entirely resistant to any moves or tricks tried by his competitors to beat Stewart, Johnson and Gordon across the line. Casey Mears also ran well, ultimately finishing sixth behind Reed Sorenson and Blaney, so it was essentially the four Hendrick Chevrolets versus a couple of Toyotas.
Of course, today’s modern, restrictor-plate constrained Daytona 500s rarely offer a window on the season to follow. What happens at Daytona and Talladega often prove to be unique, rarely if ever repeated elsewhere. Whether or not Earnhardt will be a serious championship contender this year remains to be seen, but at Daytona this week he is the unrivalled favourite.